A Raisin in the Sun a play by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set design by Thomas Lynch. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by T. Richard Fitzgerald. Composer Dwight Andrews. Cast: Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Latahn, David Aaron Baker, Lawrence Ballard, Teagle F. Bougere, Frank Harts, Billy Eugene Jones, Alexander Mitchell, and Bill Nunn.
45 years after its Broadway premiere, A Raisin in the Sun is known for many things: for being a revolutionary work, for helping launch performers like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee to stardom, and for introducing to the world the vital theatrical voice of Lorraine Hansberry.
The new production at the Royale Theatre doesn't want to remind you that the play is important, it wants to remind you that the play is good. At that, and so much more, this production is almost a ravishing success.
That "almost" is key, as there's one element - and only one - preventing this production from being truly revelatory. But more on that later.
This production is otherwise terrific - Kenny Leon has directed it with a respect and agility that makes it difficult to remind yourself that this is not a new work. It feels so fresh and lively that memories of the film version (which starred most of the original Broadway cast), other stage productions, and even parodies (such as in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum) all vanish soon after the curtain goes up.
The first sound, of the El passing by (courtesy of sound designer T. Richard Fitzgerald), and the first sight, of a shabby yet immaculate apartment (designed by Thomas Lynch), immediately transport you to the home of the Younger family in 1950s Chicago. It's early morning, and Ruth (Audra McDonald) is beginning the difficult task of getting her son Travis (Alexander Mitchell) and husband Walter Lee (Sean Combs) ready for the day. It's a ritual she's probably repeated hundreds of times, and it seems as though you can see each etched into her brow.
While she's inherently good-natured, there's an underlying seriousness in her and the other family members. Walter's mother Lena (Phylicia Rashad) is about to receive a check from the insurance company for $10,000, following the death of her husband. That money could change everything for the family: help put Walter's sister Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan) through medical school, help Walter move on from the chauffeur job he resents, or help Lena buy the house they've all been longing for.
These dreams and others are at the core of the play; they're as valuable as gold for the Youngers. (The play's title even derives from the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Deferred": "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?") It's Hansberry's exploration of how each family member meets these dreams, with dignity or otherwise, that imbues the story with touching honesty and a winning pathos. Though perhaps the prototypical black family drama, Hansberry's almost perfect blend of comedy and tragedy, combined with the story's universality, makes the play still seem relevant and readily accessible.
A strong director (such as Leon) and a great cast can only amplify the effect. Even the supporting players, many of whom have only a handful of lines, are all memorable: Bill Nunn as Walter's prospective business partner; David Aaron Baker, as a nervous white homeowner concerned with the Youngers moving into his neighborhood; and Frank Harts and Teagle F. Bougere as the men competing for Beneatha's affections, the first offering financial security but little excitement, the latter offering a return to her African roots.
The Younger family is even better. Mitchell's Travis is precocious and funny without being annoying. Lathan finds heart and humor in her slick portrayal of a modern woman torn between two very different visions of happiness. McDonald brings a real strength and an earthy sexiness to Ruth that makes her very commanding, and eminently engrossing onstage. Rashad is also a dominating presence, equally adept mining Lena's comedy, faith, desperation, and heartbreak for nothing less than optimal effect.
Then there's Combs, a music star who has appeared in a couple of movies but has no real stage experience. It shows. He has a tendency to act by protruding his lips, but seldom does much with the rest of his face, body, or voice. More importantly, he doesn't have a firm grasp on Walter's dreams; a major part of the plot concerns Walter's desire to buy a liquor store, but his emotional state doesn't seem to change whether he just desires it, sees the opportunity slip away, or experiences the final result of his attempts. The rest of Walter's major moments receive similarly ineffective treatment.
It can't be easy for Combs to share the stage with his three extraordinary co-stars, and he deserves a great amount of respect for being willing to take on such a challenging role. But Combs's work is so unconvincing and his Walter so unspecific, he seems like a bystander rather than active participant in the action. During his scenes with Lathan, McDonald, and Rashad, he looks and sounds completely out of his element.
During these times - and when Combs is not onstage - the lead women's talents keep the play soaring higher and higher. Everyone else - including Leon, Lynch, Fitzgerald, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, and all the other actors - keeps A Raisin in the Sun at that high level from beginning to end. If Combs's contributions prevent this production from being absolutely perfect, overall, it still feels like a dream come blissfully true.